Over the last couple of years, my wife and I have transitioned over to a philosophy of spending money on experiences rather than stuff – like trips to Sedona, Disney World, Glacier National Park for my birthday this coming July…even a pumpkin patch last October to get us into the mood for Halloween.
We simply enjoy experiences a lot more than stuff. To both my wife and I, the excitement of buying more stuff just wears off much too quickly, which generally leaves yet another object that once brought a smile to my face in the back of a closet, or a car that has just become any ol’ car rather than (cue exciting sound effect) “a Cadillac”.
And according to a recent study, it looks like there may have been some wisdom behind this madness after all…that my wife and I weren’t aware of.
It turns out a psychology professor at Cornell University studied this very topic, and found a striking improvement to people’s happiness who spend their money on exciting new experiences rather than just stuff.
Cornell University professor Dr. Thomas Gilovich says that we “buy things to make us happy, and we succeed. But only for a while. New things are exciting to us at first, but then we adapt to them”.
In other words, the glamour associated with objects that we believe will provide us with happiness long into the future wears off. That $5k watch might be cool to wear around for the first couple of weeks, but soon thereafter, you have nothing more than a nice watch. You may still appreciate it, but your level of happiness, according to the professor, ultimately decreases.
My wife and I have found a very similar pattern in our lives. The Cadillac CTS that I foolishly bought back in 2010 just does not provide the same level of happiness that it once did. In fact, it did not take long for the excitement of driving a Cadillac to fade. It soon just became “my car”.
Yeah, it might as well have been a Buick.
These purchases need not be expensive, either, to recognize this interesting happiness phenomenon. For example, I bought about 8 different models of sport motorcycles several years ago when I rode a Yamaha R1 sport bike. I thought having those models was pretty damn cool at the time, but now, they are just another collection of objects that sit somewhere on my shelf.
Or all those expensive cell phones that I used to buy, sometimes before my upgrade period through my cell phone carrier. It was tremendous fun opening up the box and fiddling with my new cell phone, but after a couple weeks – let’s face it, it just became another cell phone. I no longer thought of it as the newest iPhone, or most powerful Android, or a kick ass Blackberry.
Nah, it was just a phone I used to send and receive text messages, update my Facebook account and take the occasional phone call.
I have wasted a LOT of money on these stupid objects, continually turning a blind eye to what I knew to be true – I was spending hundreds, and sometimes thousands, of dollars on stuff in exchange for a couple weeks of happiness, at most.
Pardon my French, but fuck that.
Experiences, on the other hand, truly are bits of excitement that can remain with you for a lifetime. They envelope you. They grab at all of your senses, rather than just your sense of touch. I will remember and enjoy our honeymoon to Hawaii for a hell of a lot longer than that $2000 laptop I bought years ago.
Using this history as a guide, I am sure that my birthday trip to Glacier National Park, spending this Christmas in Key West, FL and next year’s Alaskan cruise in the summer will make my wife and I far happier than the accumulation of more stuff. And, believe it or not, we travel at a fraction of the cost. With credit card hacking, travel is dirt cheap.
It is more than just travel, too. Learning a new trade or starting a new hobby can be equally rewarding. Over the next couple of years, my wife and I hope to learn how to perform home improvements ourselves, like laying tile, fixing drywall and even landscaping. The money that we spend on books or classes that we take to learn this new skill is sure to not only save us substantial money in the future, but will instill within us that sense of accomplishment that can not be rivaled by the acquisition of more closet crap.
“You can really like your material stuff. You can even think that part of your identity is connected to those things, but nonetheless they remain separate from you. In contrast, your experiences really are part of you. We are the sum total of our experiences,” Gilovich said.
My wife and I couldn’t agree more.
Steve is a 38-year-old early retiree who writes about the intersection of happiness and financial independence. Steve is a regular contributor to MarketWatch, CNBC, and The Ladders. He lives full-time in his 30′ Airstream Classic and travels the country with his wife Courtney and two rescued dogs.